In a boardroom 28 stories above Manhattan, a dozen private equity executives were sitting around a mahogany table, and once again, the chairman wouldn’t shut up.
These were titans of industry; they rode up in a private elevator to avoid the “riffraff” in the lobby, recalled one person who attended the meeting. Yet beside them, monitoring their activity like a kindergarten teacher, loomed an “executive coach” gripping a stopwatch. He cut the chairman off. Too much yapping. It was time for someone else to have the floor.
The scene was emblematic of the rise of a new type of boardroom power broker: Executive coaches, once stigmatized as a remedial measure for floundering leaders, have more recently emerged as something of a status symbol in the C-suites.
“I find it unimaginable that there’s a senior leader of any substance… that does not have a coach,” said Scott Osman, CEO of 100 Coaches, which helps pair companies with leadership trainers.
“The coaching world is booming,” added Marshall Goldsmith, considered by many to be the godfather of the industry.
At the high end of the field, coaches can charge anywhere from $10,000 per month to more than $300,000 for a six-month engagement, fees that are generally written off by the companies as business expenses. Some coaches juggle as many as 20 clients simultaneously.
Corporate luminaries including Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, and Sundar Pichai have all reportedly taken counsel from coaches, which has helped normalize the practice and give the industry credibility. But the lucrative earnings potential, at least at the top, has also beckoned droves of self-branded advisers with little experience and questionable expertise.
“A lot of people can just hang a shingle and say they’re a coach,” said Grace Ueng, CEO of Savvy Growth, which offers both consulting and coaching services.
The unregulated nature of the industry—combined with the cachet of having a personal counselor—has, in some cases, clogged conference rooms with gaggles of them.
An executive who hires their own coach might start bringing them to meetings, which can trigger competitiveness from other execs who want that perk, too, said Dan Pontefract, a leadership strategist based in British Columbia.
He recalled working with a bank where four execs had brought in their own advisers—two of them in secret. The resulting dynamic was “acrimonious,” he said, with each leader clamoring to protect their own fiefdom.
“It becomes like the U.N.… You have the representative—the ambassador—and then behind them are like two or three people talking into their ear,” he said.
And as some executives are fighting to secure their own private counsel, coaches are chumming the waters. “It’s prevalent, coaches that are out there, nipping away at the heels of executives,” Pontefract added. “That’s where there’s snake oil. And that’s a problem.”
Traditionally, executive coaches are expected to abstain from meddling in the businesses they are advising. “The advantage of a coach is that we are disinterested parties,” said John Baldoni, a coach and author based in Michigan. “When you start advocating in an organization, that’s a different dynamic, and it can really, really backfire.”
That approach remains the norm. But it isn’t always how things go. In Hatching Twitter, the 2013 book about the social media giant, author Nick Bilton writes about cofounder Evan Williams’ coach, the legendary former Intuit CEO Bill Campbell.
According to Bilton, Campbell “would often arrive unannounced at Twitter board meetings and insert himself into the goings-on of the company.”
The coach, who died in 2016, would allegedly talk about his sessions with Williams with at least one board member. And though he regularly told the cofounder that he was doing “a fucking great job,” according to the book, after Williams left the room at board meetings, Campbell would exclaim, “You gotta get rid of this fucking guy! He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing!” (Reached by The Daily Beast, Twitter declined to comment.)
A more typical client-coach relationship might go like this: A coach is brought in to help a leader grow or to improve a deficiency, like poor communication, bullying tendencies, or meekness.
The first step, many coaches said, is a 360-degree assessment. During this process, the coach may sit in on executive meetings and client calls, and will interview upwards of 10 peers and subordinates to gather a complete portrait of their mannerisms and abilities.
“The assessment is the first time for many of these executives [that] they come face to face with who they think they are versus who they really are,” said Eddie Turner, an executive coach at Linkage.
Some execs crave the scrutiny and advice. “They say it’s lonely at the top. But that’s even more profoundly true than ever” because of the pandemic, said Mark Thompson, a former adviser to Steve Jobs.
Clients might discuss anything from marital problems to substance abuse issues with their coach—any topic that could affect their job performance. “I’m gonna tell you things I can’t even tell my husband,” one coach recalled a client saying, attributing their “sacred” connection to the way he listened more intensively than her spouse.
Other executives are far less receptive. “Imagine trying to coach Donald Trump,” said Sally Helgesen, who has run her own practice for more than three decades. “He’s an extreme example, but there are plenty of CEOs with big egos.”
One coach relayed an experience from a contemporary who had been assigned to counsel an exec at a large defense contractor. “What are you here to do for me?” the executive barked when the adviser walked in for their first meeting. He demanded the coach help raise his net worth substantially. If they weren’t up for the task, he said, “it’s a waste of my time.”
Coaches are split on where to draw the line between offering input and interfering. Many suggested offering no concrete suggestions to clients at all.
“You’re there not to be the hero of the story. You’re there to be Yoda,” said David Nour, who founded his own coaching firm in 2002.
To the contrary, Grace Ueng—herself a former executive—mixes coaching with consulting work, like helping recruit new talent, a blend she acknowledged is “unusual.”
“[Traditional] executive coaches are not supposed to give advice. They’re only supposed to ask questions. But I think that’s not that valuable,” she said. “I tell people… ‘You’re paying for me, I’m going to end up giving you advice.’ And they want that. They love that.”
Said Marshall Goldsmith: “I don’t come up with vaccines, but I coached the guy who came up with vaccines. I didn’t turn around the Ford Motor Company, but I coached the guy that did. So my value-add in life is not [that] I do these things. I just try to find other great people and help them.”
Naturally, some engagements do not go well. A smaller number really do not.
One adviser recalled an incident in which a coach sparked a kerfuffle after sleeping with a client’s direct report. “It’s amateur hour, or The Wild Wild West,” he lamented.
Even when things run smoothly, the industry can be stressful. The pipeline of clients is hard to predict and can fluctuate month-to-month.
“It is not, in general, a good career choice,” said Sally Helgesen. “Most coaches don’t make that much money.”
Still, the prospect of a big payday has triggered a boom in popularity, bringing with it eyebrow-raising practices.
Some coaches advising tech executives have begun investing in their startups, creating concerns about conflicts of interest, one adviser said. The move has become increasingly popular since some venture capital firms require that an entrepreneur hire a coach upon accepting a large investment.
To help companies filter for the most credible advisers, a number of training and certification programs have ballooned in size, led by the 27-year-old International Coaching Federation and its roster of more than 30,000 coaches.
“When I first started coaching 20 years ago, there was probably one or two coach-training schools. Now there’s probably 50,” said Jeffrey Hull, executive director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean/Harvard Medical School.
Those kinds of credentials can be a useful data point, but they don’t guarantee quality, multiple advisers said. Meanwhile, scores of new coaches are flooding the market each month.
“It has become a cottage industry. Now there’s all kinds of organizations that are certifying executive coaches. What the hell does that mean?” complained long-time coach David Nour. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should… They’re poisoning the well for the rest of us.”